NH high schools must narrow college prep gap

Roughly 95 percent of the students who attend one of the state’s seven community colleges come from New Hampshire. Though many performed well academically in high school, 65 percent of all entering freshmen need some degree of remedial help, according to Ross Gittell, chancellor of the community college system.

Unprepared students are far more likely to drop out and have little to show for the debts they’ve incurred. Their lack of preparation forces community colleges to teach portions of high school all over again.

That’s costly for students, parents and, when higher education is subsidized, taxpayers.

Somewhere along the line, the standards and requirements of public education fell out of sync with those of institutions of higher learning. Some educators fear that admitting so many students who aren’t prepared leads colleges to dumb down the curriculum for all. In a global economy, that’s something to worry about.

Preparing students for college is not the sole goal of public education. More broadly, it must address the educational needs of all children, college-bound or not, and prepare them for lives as productive citizens.

But that shouldn’t excuse schools from their responsibility to teach college-bound students what they’ll need to succeed when they get there. Addressing the college preparation gap should be on the agenda of every school board. It should be the concern of every parent and employer.

We found the 65 percent figure surprising, because New Hampshire students routinely do well in national rankings, but it turns out that the situation is the same in Massachusetts. Nationally, about two-thirds of all high school graduates need remedial help in at least one subject area in college.

Academically, American high school students have fallen behind their counterparts in most developed nations, particularly when it comes to science and math. That has to change if the nation is to prosper.

Community college systems in some states have begun working with school districts to address the readiness problem. New Hampshire’s system began doing so in 2008, when it launched a 15-high-school pilot program to improve student math skills.

A handbook for math teachers was created that laid out the requirements that a graduate would need to meet to do college level work, and college professors worked with high school math teachers to design two core courses for students.

One covers all the material a student will need to perform in a college introductory math class; the other allows students to take a more advanced course that will earn them joint high school and college credit.

Pembroke Academy is the only area school in the pilot program, which should be expanded to every school if, as early results suggest, it is successful. A similar effort must be undertaken to make sure college-bound graduates have the skills they’ll need in two other areas found lacking: reading and writing. To that, we’d also add science.

Testing this year by the federal Department of Energy found that when it comes to science, American students are very good at following instructions to carry out straightforward experiments. More than 75 percent of those tested did so correctly.

But only one-quarter of the students tested could accurately perform more complex experiments that required them to analyze results, make strategic decisions or, to put it bluntly, think for themselves.

That ability, and a culture that encouraged creativity, helped America become a world leader in science, technology, medicine and other fields. It’s an ability that the nation can’t afford to lose.

Public education in America must be made more rigorous. If that costs money, the investment is worth every penny.

– Concord Monitor